By Anders Lorenzen
The US is facing an intense battle against the COVID-19 outbreak, in which more than 100,000 US citizens have lost their lives. The majority of fatalities have occurred with people of colour communities. This, combined with the illegal police killing of George Floyd, an African American man effectively suffocated during his arrest, has fuelled widespread anti-racist and anti-police-brutality protests across the country and beyond.
Adding fuel to the fire, a controversial bill called the HB 197, which proposed increasing penalties imposed on peaceful environmental protestors, was introduced in the Louisiana House of Representatives by a Republican, Jerome Zeringue, and subsequently approved. However, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards subsequently used his veto power and denied the bill becoming law.
Activists had argued that the bill would make it harder for local activists to protest against ‘corporate polluters’ and that, the bill in effect, constituted ‘environmental racism’ as people of colour were disproportionately paying the price for fossil fuels pollution in Louisiana, in particular the region nicknamed ‘Cancer Alley’ – a stretch along the Mississippi River that houses numerous industrial plants, which is experiencing far higher than average incidents of cancer. The now-defeated bill would have landed harsh penalties on any protesting ‘trespassers’ on any factory infrastructure.
A petition protesting the bill reads: ‘This bill would silence free speech by imposing harsh prison sentences for merely being present at a so-called “critical infrastructure” facility. If this bill were to become law, it could criminalize people for protesting environmental injustices and racism – including the residents of Louisiana’s so-called “Cancer Alley” who have been protesting the deadly and devastating impact of corporate polluters.’
Several other US states have signed similar bills into law, criminalising environmental protests, effectively denying the public to chance to speak out and protest projects like oil and gas pipelines. It is believed that the right-wing climate-denying think tank ALEC, which defends polluting industries, is behind these laws and bills and has been lobbying intensely to get them approved.
Activists can breathe a sigh of relief that this bill was never pushed through but many warn that the struggle is far from over.